In August 1970 James Baldwin and Margaret Mead sat down to talk about race, culture, history, and the United States of America.
Mead, 68 years old, white, and liberal, was the most famous anthropologist on the planet. Baldwin, 46, black, living in exile in France, was one of the most prominent novelists of his era. The two had never met before. Their conversation, carried out in three long sessions over two long days, was tape recorded, transcribed, edited, and published as a book: A Rap on Race.
I recently finished A Rap on Race, and it’s a weird and fascinating document. The early pages read like a slightly demented graduate seminar, or the opening hours of the best first date ever — all jousting and empathy and audacity.
It bogs down later, as our heroes start getting irritated with each other. They gradually stop interpreting each others’ statements generously, start nitpicking, start interrupting. As they each struggle to synthesize what’s come before, they drift farther away from discussing lived experience and begin to retreat into metaphor and platitude.
But these are two very sharp people, and when they’re on, they’re on. The book exasperated some readers at the time, and subsequent academic assessments have dismantled many of its arguments, but I was mesmerized. Forty years after A Rap on Race was first published, I read it not as a weighty intervention in the world’s problems or as a serious addition to scholarly literature but as an artifact of its moment — a conversation between an aging white observer of world cultures and a middle-aged black expatriate, both struggling to make sense of their own histories and the country that was changing around them.
Here in 2011, we Americans have a pretty settled narrative of the civil rights era. What Betsy Ross and George Washington were to older generations, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King are to us. We know the stories by heart, and we tell them again and again. But it’s easy to forget how short that era really was — just twelve years passed between Parks’ refusal to move to the back of the bus and the gunshot that took King’s life. Twelve years, four months, and three days.
Mead and Baldwin were both adults when Rosa Parks took her stand — Mead an acclaimed scholar, Baldwin an established author. Both came of age in the time of Jim Crow, and they met well after the movement that ended it had run its course.
And so the civil rights movement is not a central concern of their discussion. When Medgar Evers’ name comes up, it’s in the telling of a story about white supremacy’s stifling, deadly grip on the South. King is mentioned in passing, but Huey Newton (for instance) is a much more immediate presence.
This is a book, in other words, not about civil rights but about two subjects Americans don’t talk much about at all — what came before, and what came after. It’s a window into two eras in American history that we rarely contemplate today, two eras which together did more to construct the one we now live in than did the brief moment that separated them.
Over the next few months, I’m going to be posting a series of weekly excerpts from A Rap on Race. Some of those passages I agree with, some I find ridiculous, some I’m not sure what to think about. Sometimes I’ll share my own thoughts in the original post, sometimes not. In all cases, I welcome questions and comments and disputation.
Hope you enjoy it all, and I hope you feel moved to bring the conversation forward. This should be fun.
(And yes, if you’re a longtime reader, you’ve seen this before. I started this series last summer, and I’m rebooting it now. Look for the latest installment every Wednesday morning.)